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                    When asked by an interviewer24  whether his Middle-earth was ”in a sense … the world we live in, but at a different era?”, Tolkien, puffing at his pipe, replied simply ”No… at a different stage of imagination, yes.”  The interviewer moved on, rapidly, but it is in fact a statement worth dwelling on. This is more than a mere word-game, for the distinction hinted at here is not superficial, it is very much at the heart of Tolkien’s work.
                    The question is natural, of course. Any reader will perceive the setting of  LotR and Sil as anything but contemporary - and yet, there is more to a story than setting and language. The Shire has nearly all the characteristics of rural English, pre-industrialised society and its inhabitants are in some ways just as unprepared for the untold perils and unexpected marvels of the outside world as, say, a contemporary reader would be.
                    Bilbo Baggins, for example, was rather a respectable hobbit before Gandalf appeared on his doorstep in The Hobbit (1937). By ’respectable’, hobbits generally infer sound, homely virtues, caution in all things, an unadventurous disposition, a fondness for peace and quiet, yet also for food, drink and celebrations  – a homogenous citizen. Yet Bilbo’s association with the old wizard and the dwarves literally dragged him out of the secluded comfort of the Shire into a strange, heroic age of adventure and danger. A similar turn of events features early on in LotR with Frodo and his friends Sam, Merry and Pippin. While the portrayal of the uneventful Shire and its rural people could readily be applied to (but not conflated with) pre-industrial Edwardian England, most of the conceptual landscape of Middle-earth is suffused with ancient Northern epics and sagas. The comfortable Shire appears to be in sharp contrast to the rest of the untamed world; both the darkness and peril and the grandeur and nobility of the outside world stand completely apart from anything the hobbits have ever experienced. Indeed, the exploration of the unknown with its air of mystique, its many secret and forgotten places, its strange beings, some foul, some noble, accounts for at least part of the basic appeal of the fantasy genre and the far more ancient traditions of romance and epic. For Bilbo, and of course for the hobbits in LotR, the journey is not solely geographical. The basic drive of the narrative is physical and spiritual movement; a journey through the landscapes of Middle-earth, its wonders and its perils, but equally through the souls of the characters. This dynamic motif made it possible for Tolkien to draw on the vastness of his (already invented) Secondary World and integrate different locations and people into the basic plot. Passing through the realms of Middle-earth, both Frodo and the reader are faced with occasional glimpses of the larger, mythic dimension which adds depth to the tale: through the travels of the Quest both are brought into contact with the marvellous. A hobbit is not your typial hero – quite the contrary – and naturally, he is completely out of place in this setting. Elves, trolls, dragons are all beings of an altogether different stature than the hobbit protagonists in both The Hobbit and LotR.
                    The generic mediation between realities (Primary and Secondary) was discussed earlier. Now, the more specialised use of the term mediation needs to be introduced. Structuralist thought employs the concept of the "mediator" as a key tool for analysis in myth studies25.  Myths operate within a universe of contrasts which are central to the story - loyalty/betrayal, male/female, death/life, order/chaos, civilised/wild - just to mention a few contrastive pairs. These conflicts and narrative tension generated by them are central to the genre. Alone, however, these elements cannot drive the narrative forward toward the resolution, or morale, or ultimate realisation which is part of its raison d'être.  Thus, this whole pattern of storytelling implies a third party, namely the mediator which functions as the unifying factor. This is the character whose actions reflect and accentuate the contrastive pairs of the story, who bridges the gap and sets greater forces in motion.
                    In LotR, hobbits, as a race and as a concept, function as mediators between the high mimesis of the epic and heroic world in which they move and the simple, rural, low mimetic image of the Shire. On the larger scale, hobbits are an image of "the ordinary" which Tolkien needed in order to ground his mythology in contemporary imagination. An important scene is at the banquet of Rivendell, where Frodo finds himself in the centre of elvendom: "Frodo looked at them in wonder, for he had never before seen Elrond of whom so many tales spoke; and as they sat upon his right hand and his left, Glorfindel, and even Gandalf, whom he thought he knew so well, were revealed as lords of dignity and power."26   This is the full splendour of the ancient world. The shadow of outside war has no power in this sanctuary and the elvish characters represent the embodiment of a mythical past far beyond Frodo's (and the readers') experience. The following descriptions will elucidate Tolkien's image of the elves (which has nothing to do with the minuscule creatures of popular tradition):

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it
was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful …
Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet
hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength. He was the Lord
of Rivendell and mighty among both elves and Men. … In the
middle of the table … there was a chair under a canopy, and
there sat a lady fair to look upon… Young she was and yet not so. …
So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen,
daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien
had come on earth again … Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had
never seen before nor imagined in his mind; and he was both surprised
and abashed to find that he had a seat at Elrond's table among all these
folk so high and fair.

                    Frodo looked in wonder - and saw what few mortals have seen. In every respect he displays the feelings we, as readers and inhabitants of the Primary World, must naturally feel when confronted with the stuff of legends. Middle-earth is a vast subcreation and that in itself stirs the readers' capacity for wonder; but this introduces yet another layer, a flicker of living legend revealed to Frodo, and, through his mediating function, to the reader.
                    Tolkien combined the sublime with the mundane and the profound with the light-hearted in unusual ways. The hobbits provide the latter. Early in the story, the idyllic and not-so-distant rural community of the Shire serves as a setting to be contrasted with the gradual passing into the ancient, the perilous, the epic and heroic - all of which are pervasive moods in the trilogy. Later in the story, the hobbit characters fulfil a narrative (and indeed human) need of occasional light-hearted relief and variation on themes of mythic grandeur or overwhelming darkness. For example, the scene describing Merry and Pippin resting and conversing after the ents' dramatic attack on Isengard provides a moment of lightness, of solace - the fruits of their far from ultimate victory being "pipeweed" (treasured by any hobbit) and momentary relief from danger. When King Théoden and his royal entourage arrive with Gandalf, the hobbits act as a formal welcoming committee:

For a moment Théoden and Éomer and all his men stared at them in
wonder. Amid the wreck of Isengard, this seemed the strangest sight.
But before the king could speak, the small smoke-breathing figure
became suddenly aware of them, as they sat there silent on the edge
of the mist. … He bowed very low, putting his hand upon his breast.
Then, seeming not to observe the wizard and his friends, he turned
to Éomer and the king. 'Welcome, my lords, to Isengard!', he said.
'We are the doorwardens. Meriadoc, son of Saradoc is my name;
and my companion, who, alas! Is overcome with weariness' - here
he gave the other a dig with his foot - 'is Peregrin, son of Paladin,
of the house of Took. … The Lord Saruman is within; but at the
moment he is closeted with one Wormtongue, or doubtless he
would be here to welcome such honourable guests. 27

                    Merry here functions as a mediator between races and stylistic levels. Yet, while showing refreshing frankness, his diction is no longer typical of the Shire hobbits. Rather, the young hobbit greets the high-mimetic characters in their own style. The significance of language and its slightest nuances, can hardly be overemphasised in Tolkien's works. The rural, uneventful Shire is clearly of a different linguistic tradition than the ancient kingdoms of Men and the elevated, (seemingly) timeless strongholds of the Elves. Therefore, this scene (and several other examples) is evidence of the gradual change of the hobbits – indeed growth is a more appropriate word, for in the case of Merry and Pippin, their contact with the ents and the nurturing effects of the "ent draughts" spark an increase in physical stature, symbolic of the moral and mental growth of the halflings. Starting from unheroic beginnings, they all experience an enhancement of sorts, "acquire merit" as Tolkien's 1971 interviewer remarked28 , and rise to positions of leadership and power by the end of the Quest. Meriadoc becomes "Master of Buckland", Peregrin becomes "Thain" of the Shire under King Elessar, and for seven consecutive periods Sam is elected "Mayor of Hobbiton". All save Frodo - who does indeed grow (his will is honed by its constant battle with the Ring, as is his insight into the nature of good and evil) but in another direction than his companions. His spiritual change is expressed through the pity and mercy which he acquires. It is a development made clear in the interaction with Gollum and finally in the pacifist role Frodo plays in the Shire after the Quest. Where the other hobbits achieve some greatness yet in Middle-earth, Frodo somehow passes out of earthly affairs altogether. "'It must often be so, Sam,'" he muses at the end, "'when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them'"29.  The displacement, social, psychological and metaphysical, which any bearer of the One Ring must endure, has left a permanent mark.
                    This explication of mythic mediation reveals the multi-layered texture of Tolkien’s Secondary World. Middle-earth contains many examples of mediation, and hobbits are but one. They are central, however, because first Bilbo, and later Frodo on a much grander scale, perform a quintessential mythic and narrative function. To readers, they represent our points of identification. They effectively bridge the gap between the vastness of Tolkien's otherworldly mythos on the one hand and the reading public of his own century on the other. With their mundane, earthy nature, the hobbits and their Shire have a distinctly familiar feel which becomes the modern readers' stable point of entry before the author unfolds the "different stage of imagination".
                    And thus, the concept of mediation also adds perspective to our initial quote, namely the somewhat puzzling answer Tolkien gave his interviewer. What he was in fact referring to was a quality quite central to Middle-earth both in conception and in depiction. Narrative techniques such as these render conventional time difference an inadequate concept with which to place Tolkien's Secondary World. In conclusion, Tolkien's tales operate not at a strictly historic stage, but also at a mythic stage of imagination, and time cannot account for timelessness. Perhaps the best and final description is found in Tolkien's own words, as he deals with this question in a letter from 1954 to Father Robert Murray:

But they [the characters of LotR] were still living on the borders of myth
– or rather this story exhibits myth passing into History or the Dominion
of Men; for of course the Shadow will rise again … but never again …
will an evil daemon be incarnate as a physical enemy; he will direct Men
and all the complications of half-evils and defective-goods, and the
twilights of doubt as to sides, such situations as he most loves (you can see
them already arising in the War of the Ring, which is by no means so clear
cut an issue as some critics have averred): those will be and are our more
difficult fate. 30

                    The closing chapters31  of LotR poignantly express the great, irrevocable transition of the world – from one “stage of imagination” to another. From the heroic age of the Elder Days to the "Age of the Dominion of Man". Arwen Evenstar, whose radiant beauty evoked the memory of Lúthien Tinúviel, who was a walking symbol of the glory of the Elder Days, ultimately shines alone – a beacon to posterity. As the last of the Elves, Arwen represents the final whisper of Fëanor’s proud exodus, of Fingolfin’s fierce sacrifice, of Eärendil’s long voyage and of Master Elrond’s legendary power and wisdom.
                    It has been argued (for example by W.A Senior) that, among the wide range of styles, moods and motifs found in Tolkien's fiction, the most pervading, and one that appears to subsume all others, is ultimately a deep sense of loss. As the narrative of LotR progresses (and even more clearly that of the Sil) we witness the inevitability of decline. The more we learn of the history of Tolkien's Secondary World, the more we come to realise the gradual lessening of power and beauty in Middle-earth. Despite its seemingly timeless qualities, Middle-earth is a world in constant change. I find this particular fact quite essential to the understanding of all Tolkien's major works and the philosophy behind them. This quality of unrelenting "movement", of passing and renewal, in a world so often associated with the timelessness of myth and legend, also remains one of its strongest claims for Secondary Belief. For many readers and critics alike, the serene beauty of  Rivendell, the power and grandeur of Minas Tirith and the otherworldly mystique of Lothlórien have overshadowed this sombre realisation of the trilogy's autumnal atmosphere. Nevertheless this atmosphere is at the heart of Tolkien's sub-creation, and it is symptomatic of some of the higher themes he aspired to: mortality vs. immortality: the human condition. As a curious appendix, it may be noted that Tolkien the man thought of the elves in ways that are not apparent in his fiction. In one of his letters, he reflects critically that Elves have indeed fallen behind time, they are "embalmers" trying to preserve a lost world - the world of their greatness and splendour. A world in which they were powerful and numerous and superior to mortal races. As Tolkien puts it, they are trying to have their cake and eat it too. In the Third Age, all their efforts are centred around this notion and not until their passing can the world move from the stage of myth into the stage of history.

  24Tolkien's last radio interview was broadcast by the BBC Radio 4 in 1971 and can be read or heard at   back
  25This term is used according to Jørgen Podemann Sørensen's definition in his lecture "Mytisk mediator – og hvad så?" which was given at KU March 14 as part of a seminar on mythology. The origin of mediation theory in myth studies can be traced to Claude Levi-Strauss' work, for example "The Structural Study of Myth" , in Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.) Myth: A Symposium, Bloomington, Ind., 1958). Structuralism tends to focus on the framework, the typical traits, the general, recurring aspects of myth, in short, the constituents which may reveal how the human mind understands and structures the world. The mediator emerges as a necessary product of Levi-Strauss' discovery of conflict (the so-called binary oppositions) as the basic building blocks of all myth.  back  
  26Both this and the following quote are from LotR, p. 243-44-45  back
  27LotR, p. 580  back
  28"Frodo accepts the burden of the Ring and he embodies as a character the virtues of long suffering and perseverance and by his actions one might almost say in the Buddhist sense he 'aquires merit'." Ref. :   back
  29Tolkien, LotR, p. 1067  back
  30Tolkien, Letters, p. 207  back
  31And the Appendix relating Aragorn's demise and Arwen's mortal fate: "There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid  herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave until the world is changed, herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.", in Tolkien, LotR, p. 1100  back

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